My first farewell.
When my parents dropped me off at Spelman College over twenty years ago to begin my adulting adventure, I watched my mother – my best friend – fight back tears. At the time, I was too excited to empathize. I couldn’t wait to be independent. Make my own decisions. Control my own agenda. Live my own life.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that I understood how painstakingly my parents paved the road to their only daughter’s long-awaited liberation. They patiently suffered my egocentrism. They encouraged my passions and gifts. They controlled their urge to control me, even when doing so would have been so much easier. My parents viewed raising me as a responsibility, and launching me into the world – free-minded and open-hearted – as a privilege. I belonged to them emotionally, but they didn’t reign over my dreams or ideas. Those were mine, and mine alone.
Once during my first semester, my mother called to talk to me. It was actually her fifth call that week, but the first time I answered. I told her she couldn’t “expect to talk to me every day,” because I had “things to do.” Hours later, my father went OFF on me. My flippant response had reduced my mother to tears, and my mother’s tears made my father furious. He proceeded to tell me everything she had done to ensure I could go to Spelman. The list was long…the heroics extreme. I’m not proud of it, but in my adolescent entitlement, I’d not given her sacrifice much thought. I was doing my thing, ignorant of her daily challenges. Her fears. Or her hustle.
I eventually came to understand how badly I needed my parents’ leadership, guidance, and support. It showed up during my first year of employment when I was forced to call home for money. When I bought my first house, and asked my Dad to help me paint, fix, move, and hang stuff. When I gave birth to my first child, and my mother took weeks off from work to teach me how to mother. Raising children – like leading people – when your vision is broader, your experience is deeper, and your responsibility is greater, can be a thankless task. Parenting is the very definition of servant leadership. And servant leadership, as we have experienced, is the healing kind.
No one is perfect, and even the best leaders misstep. Make the wrong choices. Trust the wrong people. The heart of a servant leader, though, beats strongest when only optimism and caring will do. A truly great leader knows when to step in and when to step back. When to speak up and when to stay silent. Great leaders know their strength lies not in their ability to control and command, but in their ability to build people up and bring people together…and ultimately fortify us all.
My last farewell.
And so, while we prepare to say farewell to America’s leader, a man whose grace, charm, and intellect turned “yes we can” into “yes we did,” I am filled with deep gratitude. Not because he was perfect. As Bishop T.D. Jakes says, all our heroes are human. I’m grateful because he exemplified so much of what leadership means to me. He shared a vision. Demonstrated courage. Accelerated growth. Forged partnerships. Showed resilience. Lived compassion. Modeled humility. Gave forgiveness. And exhibited self-control. While his Presidency was not free of conflict, it was free of perversion and scandal. He shared his family with us – his brilliant wife and beautiful daughters – whose love shone as a vibrant reflection of the love he held for them. He committed to us for the long haul, even as we hesitated to acknowledge the good he had done, or the sacrifices he continued to make. President Obama was a leader for our time. The one we’ll miss when we’re “on our own” – when we realize our next chapter isn’t as easy as we thought it would be. We will miss the leader who cared more about doing right than being right. Who saw leading us as a privilege, not a prize. I’m thankful to have been a contributing member of our democracy during this historic time in our country. As President Obama said in his farewell speech, “our progress has been uneven. But the long sweep of America is defined by forward motion.”
We are entering a new phase of American history. I’m not sure what’s in store, but I do know the audacity of hope remains alive in me. It’s up to those who believe in love, mutual respect, diversity, and collaboration to preserve those values. To live the faith we so adamantly claim. To be the change.
Here’s to forward motion, friends.
Somehow, some way…may we get there. Together.
Tara Jaye Frank is CEO of TJF Career Modeling, Corporate Culture Advisor for Hallmark Cards, Inc., and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, written to help women from all cultural backgrounds chart a career course they can believe in and achieve. Tara consults and speaks on women’s leadership and diversity and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter @tarajfrank, Instagram @tarajayefrank, Facebook at Facebook/tarajayefrank, or visit her at tarajayefrank.com.